There she was in a small hospital in India struggling to give birth to her first daughter, when "right under my window" a tiger ate the hospital's water buffalo.
M. M. Kaye is a storyteller, and that's a good story. She rocks back on the hotel couch, laughing.
The words spill from her mouth in a torrent, and it is sometimes hard to keep up with her fast-paced conversation. But what would you expect from a woman who has put an awesome number of words between covers in her two current best-selling novels of India, "The Far Pavilions" and "Shadow of the Moon."
At 955 pages, "Pavilions," is the kind to book about which a reader says, "it took me July and August, but I had to finish it." About 750,000 hardback copies were sold, according to Bantam Books, which has printed another 1.7 million in paperback. "Shadow" weighs in at 614 pages and over 100,000 copies are in print.
Their appeal is in Kaye's richly detailed portrayal of the wild and romantic India of the 19th century where spoiled and willful concubines assassinated their bejeweled way to powerful places in tiny -- but rich -- mountain kingdoms where half-caste heroes and heroines are tossed with the destinies of clashing civilizations. There are midnight escapes, lovemaking in raging sandstorms . . . all on the backdrop of the Raj.
Kaye is jolly, small, slender, graying and "on the wrong side of 60." She says, because young readers might think, "Good god, you can't know anything about love and life. Well, how do they expect their generation got her?"
She was born in India, the daughter of a British intelligence official playing the "great game" of trying to keep Afghanistan out of Russian hands.
The British made a "dreadful boggle" in Afghanistan, she says, and "I'm happy to see the Russians are now making the same boggle."
Her family and that of her husband, retired British army Maj. Gen. Goff Hamilton, had long been in British India and participated in incidents she describes in her books. Hamilton, an Irishman, was born in Vienna while his mother as taking an overland route back home.
As a child, Kaye recalls, her family went to Simla in the hills to escape Delhi's summer heat. The heat was something awful, "103 degrees at 2 a.m. You slept outside under mosquito netting."
Her parents took a cottage by the forest with a view of the Himalayas. Below the house was a sign post pointing up a narrow cart road. It read simply, "To Tibet." She says she and her sister used to race down to the trail to watch the colorful trader carts from Tibet pass by on their way to the Simla market.
Years later, she went back and found almost everything unchanged, except the cart trail. Before it had smelled of mule urine, but since China had sealed the border "It was dry and empty and boring."
Like many other British children growing up in a household with Indian servants, she learned to speak the local language. "We spoke the vernacular far better than English." Her ayah , or nurse, would take her to listen to storytellers in the market.
"It was like a movie serial" where they keep you coming back for another episode. The storyteller "would get you frightfully excited and then pass the hat around. If he collected enough, the story went on."
All along, Kaye was gathering the knowledge of India and its people that fills her two books. Much of "Pavilions" is set in 1879 when Britain failed in a bloody attempt to take Afghanistan. "Shadow" takes place a few years earlier in 1857 when Indian troops turned on their British officers and families.
The mutiny, as the British called it, erupted after Britain introduced a new rifle that required the use of cartridges smeared with animal fat and lard. To be fully effective, a tip of the cartridge had to be bitten off. The animal fat outraged both Hindus and Moslems -- the cow is sacred to Hindus and Moslems are prohibited from eating pork. Both became convinced the grease was a plot to defile them and force them into Christianity.
Kaye says she was always asking questions. In that way, she learned about the Afghan war and the mutiny from people who knew about it first hand. "Their answers would begin, 'When I was young . . .' or 'My father told me . . .'"
In both her India novels, a principal character is sent to England for formal education. That's what happened to Kaye at 10. And like Ashton in "Pavilion" and Winter in "Shadow" she always intended to return.
She did so at 17 and remained until her father's death, when she and her mother went back to England. There Kaye set herself up in a studio to paint and illustrate children's books, eventually writing a series of them herself.
"They were about the farm and the animals -- whimsy, whamsy stuff." Her byline then was Mollie Kaye "for the rabbits and the mice." But when she decided to switch to spy thrillers, she became M. M. Kaye (for Mary Margaret).
"I took a lot of novels out of the library to fill in the blank evenings, and I thought, (Somebody's being paid for this rubbish. I can do that.'" The first whodunit sold well, and she earned enough money to go back to India to write.
People sometimes tell her there are too many coincidences in her novels. "But isn't life full of coincidences?" Hers is, she feels. She met her husband when a friend asked him to deliver a letter to her in Kashmir. They married in 1942.
She remained in India during World War II "doing volunteer work" while her husband often was away in Burma. They left India in 1947 when it achieved its independence and was partitioned between the present India and Pakistan.
"Many of my American readers write to tell me I should have put a note at the beginning of 'Pavilions' saying the India I was writing about is now Pakistan." She says she replied to all those letters, telling her American readers, "You're the world power now. You bloody well ought to know."
Sad at having to leave India, the family returned for a time to England, where Kaye began writing again. "We were rather broke. The British army isn't well paid.I thought it was about time dear Mollie helped out."
Her spy novels caught on, but she wanted to write a book about India. Finally she got one thriller ahead and took two years off to do "Shadow."
"Shadow" has had an unusual publishing history. Following the success of "Pavilions," a hardback best-seller last year and now high on the paperback list, "Shadow" was reissued, and it too is on its way up the list.
But when "Shadow" first was published 23 years ago, it contained only a third of its present 614 pages says Kaye. The rest had been edited out. It did not sell well.
They kept in the romantic stuff, she says, but took out the history. "I ought to have said use it all. But I didn't know how many beans make five. I let it go; I needed the money."
"I wrote it too early," she says. "It was for the centennial of the mutiny in 1957," but it was only 10 years after Britain had left India. "Everbody wanted to forget. They didn't want that kind of book. Colonialism was an absolutely unprintable word."
When "much to my surprise 'Pavilions' hit, and St. Martin's Press said they would like to bring 'Shadow' out. I told them 'nobody's going to bring it out unless it's the way I wrote it.'"
Her editor, she says, told her, 'nobody's going to take a short book from M. M. Kaye."
Kaye is very serious about her history. "I want to tell the history, but with the sugar coating of a story. My books are very easy to read."
When people compare "Pavilions" to "Gone With the Wind," she is thrilled. "I love that book. People anywhere can tell you about the war between the North and the South because of that marvelous bit of work. It gave you a true history but sugar-coated it."
Both of her books rely heavily on fact. "I think the fact that it happened is more interesting" in a novel. All the incidents in "Shadow," she says "really happened to someone." Only the names were changed. In "pavilions," a principal character, Lt. Walter Hamilton who dies defending the Kabul-residency, is a kinsman of her husband. The real Walter Hamilton won a posthumous Victoria Cross for his bravery.
After "Shadow," there was a gap of several years before her next book, "Trade Wind," set in Zanzibar, where her husband had been posted. It, too had the history pages cut out. But she expects it to be reissued soon, as she originally wrote it.
"That," she says, "will fill the gap while I'm writing my autobiography."
And it was 15 more years before she finished "Pavilions." Why the delays?
"I was busy. I'm a professional army wife, I reckon. We made 22 moves in 17 years." In 1963, after researching "Pavilions" in the Afghan border area, she discovered she had cancer. It was a four-year fight to recovery.
Before her husband retired, "We moved, moved. I loved it. I have itchy feet. I used to be upset at army wives who complained about 'poor George being sent to Baghdad.' I would have paid to go, but Her Majesty was sending them free."
She saw Egypt, Cyprus, Kenya and the game parks when they were at their best "before the tourist." And China and Japan.
She and her husband now have a home in Sussex ("I picked it because Kipling lived there."), but it's hardly a quiet life. They are on an 11-city book tour this month, and in November they go to Pakistan at the invitation of the travel ministry.
"I still don't believe all this happening.I don't yet take it all in," she says. "A friend told me, 'When the rest of us are settling down to be old grandmothers, you're whipping around the world.'"
Despite her success, she's still got a problem with editors who want to cut her words. A German book club wants a German-language version of "Pavilions" trimmed by 200 pages, she learned in a telegram this week. But she takes it philosophically: "German is a much longer language than English."
In any case, she will refer often to the "magical qualities' of her life in India and her eagerness to capture it.
As she said a year ago in an interview about "The Far Pavilions,"" . . . for my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. I want to write how it was. It was an enchanting life which will never come again. If anything has gone with the wind, that has. It was a magical life to have lived."